Friday, 25 October 2013
Sir Alex feels the calm before a Snow storm
By Bryan Cooney
AS far as this armchair pundit could discern, Sir Alex Ferguson demonstrated in his recent London press conference that he might not be so resistant to restraint after all.
For once adopting an air that correlated with his status as a benevolent grand-dad, he downloaded his reasons for writing that book.
This was, remember, his ninth and perhaps most significant tome. It was the one that contained a farrago of trenchant observations about those who served him at Manchester United (think Keane, Beckham, Rooney, etc); the one which spectacularly punctured a myth he helped create - that all things controversial should be confined to the dressing room.
There was little evidence of the infamous Fergie intensity on this day; certainly no finger-jabbing, no stares that would have unhinged anyone other than Roy Keane, no minatory threats and, blissfully, no language of an unsatisfactory nature.
I would venture, however, that his triumph became in many ways the Fourth Estate’s humiliation. The so-called cream of Britain’s sports journalism ensured that this was not so much a major media event as the deification of a football legend.
To use a boxing colloquialism, they rarely laid a glove on him, let alone a finger. Oh, there were a couple of questions that led to a tightening of the lips and the head lowering in desk-studying mode - especially the one concerning the intriguing and apparently never to be sufficiently explained Rock of Gibraltar affair.
But, in general, the atmosphere was heavy with sycophancy and it seemed Ferguson was luxuriating in the deodorant.
As a former sports editor who once encouraged investigative reporting into football’s more intriguing issues, I’m sometimes alarmed by these events. Particularly so when they feature a collection of rampant egos who normally can’t wait to thrust their faces onto television screens and declare their insider knowledge to the world. I’m talking about some members of my own profession hereabouts.
Well, this was their big day, their Cup Final if you wish to use that clichéd analogy, and I’m afraid history will state that most of them - although not all - lost badly.
So, what went wrong? Why did the majority of Fleet Street’s finest turn into fruit flies? Were they intimidated by the man and his towering status on such an auspicious occasion? Were they simply wearied by all the bollockings and bans that had been levied upon them in earlier years? Or did they simply want to forge friendships with Fergie, now that he claims to have mellowed?
I’ve heard it said they were frustrated in that their time was consumed by the amount of foreign journalists asking banal questions. Sorry, I’m unable to buy that one. There were enough unnerving silences during proceedings to suggest that people had forfeited their nerve.
Look, if there’s any mitigation out there, I’ll concede it’s scarcely appealing to enter a public confrontation with a behemoth, and even less so if that behemoth is named Ferguson. There is more than a chance that you’ll lose.
But as John McEnroe used to proclaim: ‘You don’t ask, you don’t get!’ If you want to retain credibility and your objectivity as a journalist, certain occasions demand you have to start standing on toes, and big ones at that.
Where were all the questions that the public - especially a (£25) book-buying public - were entitled to demand of a man who has gone through life occasionally occupying the role of rogue elephant?
One of the memorable lines featured Roy Keane. Fergie said: ‘His eyes narrowed to wee black beads. It was frightening - and I’m from Glasgow!’ Hey, I can appreciate such apprehension, but what do they say about what goes around comes around?
Might someone not have pointed out that this was sheer hypocrisy and that he (Ferguson) had been attempting to intimidate people all his life? Yeah, even those who liked and admired him.
Hereabouts, you should absorb the words of the late Aberdeen vice chairman Chris Anderson, once Fergie’s mentor. He once privately confessed to television reporter Frank Gilfeather: ‘He virtually runs Pittodrie. Every area of the club and the media, he wants an element of control. He needs to know everything that’s going on. But, then, you’ve got to realise that he’s a megalomaniac.’
Gilfeather asked why they tolerated such a figure. ‘Because he’s a winner!’ was the immediate response.
So, on November 6 1986, Manchester United and Martin Edwards, the often derided former chairman, quite legitimately sourced this winner (and alleged megalomaniac), and, after an initially tortuous few years, found themselves taking the road to untrammelled success.
Incredibly, the journey would last nigh on 27 years. Ferguson is responsible for that and we should never forget it. Thus, he is entitled to take every plaudit that’s going, enjoy both his retirement and the handsomely remunerated globe-travelling role that has been awarded him by a grateful football club. Bloody good luck to him. God knows, there is little gratitude in this game.
But equally there are matters that still require at least a little explanation. Why, for someone so proud of his legacy, did he leave Manchester United with a team that was beginning to groan with age and required refurbishment?
And why, considering his insistence at keeping things in-house, did he break the issue of Wayne Rooney’s disaffection with the club and therefore saddle David Moyes with a problem of gargantuan proportions?
Mind you, those reporters had company in their ineptitude. At this juncture, the formidable form of Adrian Chiles takes centre stage. He’s the man, armed not only with a big fat, ITV contract but also a rather destabilising accent; you imagine he could fit into the next series of the BBC Two drama, Peaky Blinders, without anyone noticing. I loved Peaky Blinders. Not so sure the love extends to the big fella, though.
On Tuesday evening, he was hosting coverage of Arsenal’s Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund. And with Roy Keane being one of the resident pundits, Chiles might have been expected to play a blinder, if you’ll pardon the expression.
But here, apparently overwhelmed by the importance of the moment, he said something jokey about Keane not being too popular with Ferguson. The Irishman, displaying the nerve of a man who has been playing stud poker all his life, claimed he wasn’t upset by this, but then questioned Fergie’s regard for loyalty.
In reality, the question was a cop-out. Keane should have been asked about his propensity for instilling fear not only among his Manchester United players but also his former manager. It was another golden opportunity lost.
But, before I dismiss Tuesday, October 22, as a bleak day for journalism, let me tell you about the rescue act that presented itself in the slender shape of Jon Snow. Anyone tuning in to the Channel 4, demanding objectivity and journalism at its finest, was rewarded with a bravura performance from the 66-year-old.
Sir Alex, so benign, so self-assured, so omnipotent facing friendly fire earlier in the day, suddenly was presented with an authentic hoop to jump through. There were times the physical feat looked beyond him. I’ll give you a flavour..
Snow: The interesting thing about you is you brought on all these incredible young players. But you fell out with all of them?
Ferguson: You have to deal with issues as they are at the time. The important thing is don’t lose your control. Manchester United cannot afford players to run the club.
Snow: So control is all?
Ferguson: Not all, but it’s really, really important. If you want to stay in a job, you need to have that.
Snow: It sounds a bit Stalinist?
There was much more. Snow put it that Ferguson had been weak in his handling of the media; that his banning of people suggested he ‘couldn’t take the rough with the smooth. You banned a lot of people; you loved to chuck them out of your press conferences.’
Ferguson’s answer failed to convince, stressing that there was no recourse with the press. If Snow was impressed, it didn’t inhibit his next line of attack. ‘You seem to demonstrate a very thin skin. And yet you’re a God head. People know who you are.’
Ferguson attempted to raise the siege by claiming that he never held grudges. Snow despatched that statement through the covers for a four, emphasising that the Scot had banned BBC for seven years over a documentary about his son, Jason. It had been a very poor documentary, claimed Sir Alex, again unconvincingly.
Towards the end of the 11-minute one-to-one, Ferguson looked as if a cold shower might be appropriate. But there was one final question: would he be writing another book?
I might be mistaken in my analysis here, but his whole demeanour suggested that a 10th book would never be an option. Ever.